Abide in Me
Through the years, I have lived in a lot of places. I remember the first apartment I had, a little one-bedroom place, in Fayetteville. I remember the townhouse Heather and I moved into after we got married and the house we got later on when Avery was a year and half old. I remember the houses and apartments during seminary and when we lived out west. And of course, I remember the house I grew up, the same house my parents still live in today. Some of them felt like home, some not so much, but I lived in all of them.
I can’t say I abided in all of them though. Some I definitely liked better than others; some felt more like home than just a place I was staying. The townhouse in Wilmore was probably the most homelike but it had more to do with where we were in life and the fact that we lived among other seminarians who were struggling with all the same things we struggled with at the time. The buildings we lived in were more like giant houses with rooms for each family. We ate together often. Our children played together. We commiserated together, cried together, celebrated together, and ultimately helped prepare each other for the ministry journey ahead. I think what made the experience so different from others had to do with this idea of abiding.
To understand this word, abide, and really get the meaning, I think we need to look into it from a little explored perspective of Christianity: the mystical tradition. Now, before you begin thinking about strange people with long beards and hair running around in caves and fields, we need to define a few things. Christian mysticism has always been a part of the faith and many people have contributed to it from the beginning: John, the writer of Revelation, St. Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton, and many others. A helpful definition of mystical Christianity comes from Richard Rohr, a monk and contemporary writer on the subject. In his book, The Universal Christ, Rohr says,
When I use the word “mystic” I am referring to experiential knowing instead of just textbook or dogmatic knowing. The difference tends to be that the mystic sees things in their wholeness, their connection, their universal and divine frame, instead of their particularity.
I believe what he means by this is that mystical Christianity is something that comes from us changing the way we see God and creation from fact based to feel based. It’s kind of like certain situations or places you’ve been when something either felt really right or really wrong, but you couldn’t tell why. You simply knew it on some deep, instinctual level. The rightness or wrongness was something you felt without seeing. Mystical knowledge is something feel without seeing, in the same way that you experience the presence of God or the Holy Spirit. It is knowing with something other than your physical senses.
I think when Jesus is talking about the idea of abiding in him or remaining in him as it says in the Common English Bible, he is talking about us using some of this mystical, experiential knowledge through the lens of the teachings he left us. I believe abiding in Jesus is spending a great deal of time looking at Jesus life as handed down to us in the gospels and allowing the Holy Spirit to teach us to understand the teachings.
That sounds all well and good but how do we do that? How do we allow the Spirit of God to teach us from these teachings of Jesus? First step, read the gospels, preferably daily, preferably several times. As you do, look first for things that are direct and easy to understand. These things are like Luke 10 where Jesus explains loving your neighbor or Matthew 25 where Jesus tells us how to help those who have less than we do and need us to help them get by day to day. Then we move into things like parables, things that might be a little harder to understand. I think that’s where the abiding comes in, where we look at our journey, look at the things God has already revealed to us and open ourselves in prayer and meditation to being taught more about by the Holy Spirit. This is how our forefathers and mothers who created the earliest works of Christian literature and theology came to understand God. They practiced this experiential reading and waiting on God and then wrote about their experiences.
There is also an element of staying in these things once you get there. Abiding is kind of like what we did at seminary—you live in it. In this case, you live in the words and teachings of Jesus and the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit. You stay in the habits and stay with the teachings you learn to learn more about them. You grow into a new understanding through trial and error and practice and as you go deeper you learn even more than that and it never stops. We abide from now on, either in this body or the next.
This may some new language, a new way of seeing the idea of abiding for some. For others it may simply be uncomfortable language. The idea behind it—learning from the words of Jesus, living into what we learn, and being led by the Holy Spirit deeper and deeper in understanding and maturity—should be familiar enough for us to begin the practice. My hope and prayer is that each of us will begin trying this way of seeing that is ancient in origins.
Someone asked me recently, how do regrow the church? In the midst of Covid shutdowns, political divides, and social change, how do grow the church here at the crossroads of Zion and Old Pardue? I believe if we live into this way of practice, this abiding or remaining in the teachings and Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will grow. It’s not about some big party for the neighborhood, though there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not about programs for kids or Sunday school classes, though there’s nothing wrong with that either. It is about changed hearts and changed lives and changes in how look at the world and those around us. If we change and the world sees that change and knows the fervor with which we have changed, they will want to change, too. If we aren’t changed by the journey, we take we have nothing to talk about, nothing to share. Why be part of another social club and add to our calendar of commitments? But if we change by abiding, remaining in the vine of Jesus, we have something to share, something worth talking about. We’re no longer a social club. We are part of a movement toward something greater than ourselves.
We are part of the Body of Christ.